Small towns look to Legislature for help with aging school buildings

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Chuck Ehler
Chuck Ehler, superintendent of Rushford-Peterson Schools, has decided to team up with school officials in Moose Lake to try to get legislative support that would contribute some funding for infrastructure upgrades in both districts.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

On a shelf inside his office, Rushford-Peterson school Superintendent Chuck Ehler shows off a collection of rusted pipes and crumbled drywall.

"This is plaster that comes down off of our ceilings, some of our classrooms," Ehler said. "And this is 1906 construction."

Some of the damage is the delayed effect from a 2007 flood that sent raw sewage through the southern Minnesota school. Since then, Ehler has been unable to convince state lawmakers to provide part of the money for a new school, and in December voters in Rushford and Peterson rejected a $15 million referendum to help pay for one.

Two-hundred miles to the north, in Moose Lake, Minn., Moose Lake school Superintendent Bob Indihar struggles to make use of a 78-year-old building damaged in a flood last June. The school system spent $800,000 to repair the school but does not want to put any more money into the building.

Damaged brick walls
A storage closet has damaged brick walls at the school in Rushford, Minn. The building, which was built in 1906, requires a lot of repairs, so Rushford-Peterson school officials are teaming up with their counterparts in Moose Lake to try to get legislative support that would contribute some funding for infrastructure upgrades in both districts.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

The Rushford-Peterson and Moose Lake districts plan to join forces to ask the Legislature for $20 million each to offset part of their rebuilding expenses, hopeful that a collective approach will boost their chances.

"I think we have a better chance if we pair with another city," Indihar said. "The thing we always hear is, 'If we do it for you, we have to do it for everybody. There's 500 other buildings that need to be fixed.' All we can do is give our case, and ours is unique, I think. We've been through floods. And there's not too many other schools in the state that can say that."

In Rushford-Peterson, the problems are everywhere. Inside the pre-kindergarten classes, a false ceiling catches pieces of plaster that fall. In the auditorium, the stage floor has settled. Ehler continues to find rusted sewer pipes in the bathrooms.

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"Our building is older than the Titanic and there's a reason we're experiencing the things we're experiencing," he said. "That and the flood impact and all of the things that we dealt with as a result of the flood, we're going to continue to deal with."

Grace Keliher, director of governmental relations for the Minnesota School Board Association, thinks the timing might be right for these two districts.

She said the current formula by which districts fund their buildings — local property taxes for construction and state funding for education — has a crippling effect on small communities with aging populations and shrinking economies. The floods, she said, exacerbated the problem for both these towns.

Students walk through halls
Students pass through the halls during a class change at Rushford-Peterson High School Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. School officials in Rushford-Peterson and Moose Lake are teaming up this year to try to get legislative support that would contribute some funding for infrastructure upgrades in both districts.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

"I think it's irrational to assume every community can absorb that kind of financial knock-out punch," Keliher said. "And that's where the state steps in. And there is a line between what you can reasonably ask your community to do and when you need the state's help.

If the superintendents in Moose Lake and Rushford-Peterson can't get help from the state, both say they'll continue to repair their old schools and keep them as safe as they can for both students and teachers.

Moose Lake voters will decide later this spring whether to approve a $33 million bond to build a new school on high ground.

Indihar said taxpayers cannot pay for the entire bill but are willing to pay for some of the costs. He sees working with Rushford-Peterson as his district's only chance of convincing lawmakers to help fund the flood-damaged districts.

"We are Democratic up here," Indihar said. "They're Republican down there. So if we have a bill that maybe both parties could buy into, maybe we would have some bi-partisan support on this type of thing."